Across the Ocean for the Last Cookbook

The place of minestra in Italian American cuisine

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So what is endive? Endive or Cichorium endivia is a head of light to dark green, broad leaves. Everyone knows it as the somewhat less bitter tasting spinach or collard whose taste mellows with cooking. The raw texture is crunchy, and the leaves hold shape when cooked. A far cry from the smaller cone-like Belgian Endives which I’ve been told have been genetically modified in the Netherlands to reduce the bitterness for the sake of pleasing the consumer’s pallette. It is available year-round though in the Netherlands a portion of that year is in a green house. Regarding nutritional value, it is

“high in vitamin A which studies have shown can reduce the risk of osteoporosis and cancer. It is also high in vitamin K which aids the body in blood clotting. In addition it contains significant amounts of folate, vitamin C, dietary fiber, calcium, potassium, iron and antioxidants such as flavonoids and lutein.”

Endive has a number of uses, cold and hot, but I want to propose its use for what Italian Americans call Minestra. In fact, “true” endive is supposed to originally come from Sicily and the Mediterranean region. My Dad’s family came from south of Italy, and my mother, with ancestry in Germany and England, did her best to deliver versions of the most popular southern Italian dishes: lasagna, spaghetti and meatballs, gnocchis, etc. I don’t remember her making Minestra as I know it today, but greens such as spinach had a frequent place at our table.

It wasn’t until I was well out of the house that I recalled a recipe book published by the Catholic church where I was baptized. Mater Dolorosa. I remember it mainly for two reasons. My baptism, of course, and then the pizza they made fresh and served at their festival every year. When I was much older, and with my father having passed away and mother with no need to cook for an army, the kids all gone and with their own families, I thought of that recipe book.

I decided to call the church to see if somehow after all these years they were still producing it. So I called, they put me through to the head priest, and wouldn’t you know it, they stopped publishing the recipe book and had only one copy left. The priest told me he would put it aside for me if I were travelling to my hometown from overseas anytime soon and wanted to pick it up. Of course, I jumped at the chance.

In fact, we were planning a transatlantic journey, so we added this trip down memory lane to our itinerary. When we got to the church, right where I had left it, the priest was delighted to meet me and hear my story. He in turn explained that the book had been popular for years and the contributors were somewhat famous. To mark the moment, my partner took a picture of me with the priest while holding the book.

So why was the book so precious?

It included the treasured recipes of a community of Italian and Italian American women, including the best minestra I had ever tasted. In fact, I was linking to part of my birth history not through religion so much but through food though many might argue with Italian Catholics you can’t separate the two.

So why did I love this recipe besides the fact that it emerged from my Italian American heritage? For one thing, it was quite simple. Endive, meat, beans and garlic. That was basically it. It was a simple, peasant dish. A meal in one. In an Italian cook’s measurements. A stew pan full of chopped endive boiled, a few fists of chopped bacon and chopped ham sauteed with garlic, a few ladles of white beans and chicken bouillon or broth to taste. Of course, everyone knows with Minestra the ingredients can vary. In fact, my mother has often used a version with Kale, though that is not my preference. I miss the delicious bitter endive leaves and texture.

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Today I am making another batch of Minestra and as far away as I am in the Netherlands, it brings me back home and to my childhood when we would go to those church festivals. To think that the woman who shared the Minestra recipe came from the same community and wanted others to enjoy the meal. Now I’m sharing it with you for the same reason — to appreciate the simple Italian American flavors and to share them with the larger community.

For more of Barbara’s blogs, go to www.barbaralciccarelli.com. Follow me on Twitter and Linkedin.

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